by William Lychack
Eggplants are, apparently, either male or female, Kali getting us up to our elbows in these great bins of eggplants, explaining in her sing-song voice how females will have more meat, less seeds, and will be less bitter for us. She shows us the way males don’t have dimples under their fat end and explains how we’ll be candy striping the skins later and dressing them with salt to draw the water out before cooking. We are, by the way, in Little India, in the middle of one of Singapore’s many wet markets, Kali having started our education in her native Tamil cooking by teaching us first how to choose the best produce and then how to dicker the best prices with the stall owners. “You must be willing mongers. Kali holds each fish by its tail to test its freshness. She opens the gills, which need to be bright red, and strokes each tiger shrimp to be sure they’re slippery to the touch, which means they’re fresh. There are great baskets of slow-moving spider crabs and, above us, scissor swallows swoop back and forth under the ceiling. Kali argues over the price, has the fish wrapped in newspaper, and tells us that she doesn’t know about us, but she already has the most important ingredient for any meal—hunger.
Outside is Serangoon Road, the walkways strung with rally flags and colored lights—it’s the day after Ganesh’s birthday—and bright red shrines to the Elephant Boy and his mother, Sati, stand on every corner. Bollywood music warbles under the awnings of a music store. One of Singapore’s most famous fortune-tellers happens to be at the corner and we stop and sit in the shade of his sidewalk booth, his bright green parrot looking,” she says, “to walk away.”
We’re winding a path through this warren of dry goods and flowers, fruits and vegetables, making our slow way toward the musky smell of lamb, then poultry, and then the slick-wet concrete and tiles and smell of the fish at us and choosing our card from the deck before him, the man reading our hands and numbers, Kali translating the what has been and what will come.
Singapore has been home to my wife’s family for more than seven years now—and we’ve planned a feast before returning home to New York. Our final evening in Asia will be tandoori prawns, chicken curry, eggplants, lentils, chutneys, yogurt cucumbers, yellow spring rice, papadam bread, chocolate carrot cake… And as soon as we get home from the market, Kali has us cleaning the prawns, as they’re the quickest to spoil. She talks in a kind of Singlish, a derivation of what most native Singaporens speak, and she tells us how rinsing the shrimp after we peel and de-head them will remove all the flavor from their flesh. We are new to cooking like this, my wife and I, and we just do as Kali does.
“How did she learn to cook?” we ask.
“As a little girl,” she says, “learning to cook, watching my mother, she’d always let me help prepare with her. ‘Chop the onions,’ she’d say. And I’d take up all the little bits and pieces and put it all behind and wait for lunch to be over and for my mother to disappear for a nap. So then I’d go and take all her ingredients into the backyard and, with a little stove and a little pot, I’d cook all the ingredients and try to remember how she did everything. Then I’d call my neighbors, take banana leaves for plates, and make the children sit and serve them. Sometimes my mother caught me, but the more my mother said, “No, no, no,” the more I said, “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.”
Not a single ingredient goes into the meal that isn’t connected, in some way, to a story for Kali—the medicinal uses of young ginger, the way she learned to make the mango chutney, how her husband worshipped her lentils leading to why and how they divorced. “I told him I couldn’t go on like we were,” she says and smiles and chops the chicken with a heavy butcher’s cleaver, “and he either had to leave or kill me.”
She describes her cooking as somewhere between the traditional, spicy food of her grandmother and the hawker-style food of her mother. “I cook for health,” she says, “health and presentation.”
KALI’S NAN PURI
½ Cup Milk (warm to the temperature of blood and add ½ teaspoon of sugar in a medium-sized bowl)
Add 1 Tablespoon of yogurt to Milk
Add 1 teaspoon of yeast (sprinkle on top)
Cover with clear-plastic wrap
Ready when foggy (yes, FOGGY—difficult to believe or explain, but after about 10 minutes the bowl will have a fog over it and will be ready for the flour)
Add 3 Cups of flour
1 teaspoon salt
Knead dough always toward the middle, using a light oil on your countertop to avoid sticking, adding touch of warm water
Turn dough over and let rise a second time
Make a log of the dough and cut into 2-inch pieces (approximately the size of a golf ball)
Roll out into a 1/4–inch pancake
Cook in very hot oil (the bread will puff up), turn when golden brown, and let drain